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31 July 2006

Unhitch us from the Bush chariot

Sir Stephen Wall, a former top foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair, calls on the P

By Stephen Wall

No 10, which is both hothouse and bunker, is well stocked with TV sets. Prime ministers do not find much time to watch. They should. John Major led the rescue of the Iraqi Kurds in 1991, not because he followed a clever Foreign Office plan but because, sitting at home over Easter, he had time to look at the news. What he saw shocked him into action. He mobilised the EU and then challenged George Bush Sr to back his plan for safe havens for the Kurds. A reluctant Bush was, in the end, also moved by what he saw on his screen: the desperate spectacle of human misery.

I defy any person watching TV not to cry out loud for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. Yet our government and that of the US have weasel-worded their way through this tragedy. Why?

Tony Blair would argue that words of condemnation come cheap and that the job of a leader is to forgo the glib soundbite if, by grabbing a headline at home, you write yourself out of the script where it matters most – in this case, in Israel and the US. I have no doubt he has been urging President Bush to action, as well as working for a solution himself. He is right to sympathise with Israel’s plight. And he will know, in greater detail than the rest of us, the role that Iran and Syria are playing behind the scenes.

Yet sympathy for Israel and her suffering, the detestation of terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and the desire to see a durable cessation of hostilities do not justify silence, or adequately explain the reasons for it.

One reason is that, in their bunker, leaders become isolated from the world outside. A prime minister has access to the widest sources of information but listens only to a narrow group of people. Those people, ministers and advisers, are immersed in the exhausting 18-hour days of work of monitoring advice from our embassies, talking to their contacts in other governments, organising the evacuation of British subjects. Pressure, isolation and fatigue undermine good judgement.

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But the overriding reason for Britain’s loss of moral authority is Blair’s conviction that he has to hitch the UK to the chariot of the US president. Realism about an independent foreign policy is sensible, not least on the 50th anniversary of Suez. This government, however, has taken to unprecedented lengths the view that Britain’s influence on the US can be exercised only in private. It has too readily lost sight of the fact that Britain’s interests, and those of the US, are not identical.

There have been times on trade issues when the PM should have told Bush to get his tanks off our lawn. There are still times when, as well as working quietly with Congress on climate change, we should speak up about the irresponsibility of the White House.

There are times, such as the past two weeks, when a British prime minister should have been thinking less about private influence and more about public advocacy. Could the Prime Minister really not speak up for the simple proposition that the slaughter of innocent people in Lebanon, the destruction of their country and the ruin of half a million lives were wrong and should stop immediately? “What kind of ceasefire?” Blair asks. One that stopped the horror, even for 24 hours, would be a start.

Ronald Reagan told Menachem Begin in 1982 that the Israeli onslaught on Beirut threatened to turn into “a holocaust”. I doubt Reagan’s advisers put those words on one of his famous cue cards. He spoke from anger and conviction. Is it the conviction of our government that we should leave it to George W Bush to set the bearings of our moral compass?

Foreign Office posts around the Middle East will have been reporting on the cost to Britain’s interests of our silence. I imagine that members of the cabinet have been warning about the price to be paid inside Britain for our apparent complicity. I hope that Margaret Beckett has been as robust in private as she has been loyal in public. To what avail? David Owen said of Margaret Thatcher that she reached the point where her political antennae were able only to broadcast and no longer to receive.

Blair has supreme confidence in his own judgement. Let us hope that the reflected light from the TV screens, even now, serves to illuminate the bunker.